Cultural Sensitivities Often Permeate Crime Reporting

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Crime coverage can be one of the most challenging assignments for reporters. It can be especially complicated for journalists of color, because crime stories sometimes play on racial fears and stereotypes. A roundtable of crime reporters discuss the challenges of telling painful stories in a way that respects the victims and the community.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. For the rest of the week, we are broadcasting from Chicago, where we will be attending the UNITY conference of journalists of color and bringing you important stories from and about Chicago.

A little later in the program we're going to meet with a man who's following in Barack Obama's footsteps. He's a community organizer in Chicago. But what exactly does a community organizer do? We'll find out in a little bit.

But first, we're going to be talking about issues in the media this week, so we decided to start with what might be one of the news business' most common assignments but also the most complicated. Just about every news outlet covers crime, but crime can also play into race-based stereotypes, so how do reporters, especially those of color, find the right balance between being tough and being fair?

We've assembled a roundtable of crime reporters. Ruben Rosario is a columnist for the Pioneer Press in Minnesota. Ti-Hua Chang is an investigative reporter for WWOR TV, a Fox station in New York and New Jersey. Kara Briggs is a columnist for Indian Country Today, and Kathy Chaney reports for Chicago Defender. Welcome, great to talk to all of you.

Mr. RUBEN ROSARIO (Columnist, Pioneer Press): Thank you.

Mr. Ti-HUA CHANG (Investigative Reporter, WWOR TV): Thank you.

Ms. KARA BRIGGS (Columnist, Indian Country Today): Welcome.

Ms. KATHY CHANEY (Reporter, Chicago Defender): Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me just start this way. For some of you, crime reporting is a big part of the job, for others it's just one of the things that you do. I wanted to ask each of you, when you thought about being a reporter, did you want to cover crime stories? I guess I'm asking, did you find it or did it find you? Ruben?

Mr. ROSARIO: Well, not so much crime because I grew up in New York and grew up with New York Daily News and getting the Bulldog Edition at night. So of course, as you know, Michel, the Daily News has always been a very crime-conscious tabloid in terms of following where the blood leads and where the bodies fall.

But my passion was more to cover the communities where crime happened rather than covering the crime in those communities. So it was a little bit of a different perspective I had coming from the South Bronx and seeing the impact that crime had on my community when I was growing up as a child. So I had a different perspective than perhaps most of the brethren newsroom people there.

MARTIN: Ti-Hua, what about you?

Mr. CHANG: I didn't plan on covering crime. I planned on being a doctor, like any good Asian kid in the United States.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHANG: Actually, I was telling Kathy, I actually lived in Chicago as a machinist in a place that's now the Bricktown Mall. But I got hired in Detroit and when I got there he said, you're going to be the crime reporter, and I said, oh, OK. And so that's how I got started in crime reporting.

MARTIN: Wow. Kara, what about you?

Ms. BRIGGS: I started out to be a features writer, and in my first day of daily newspapers there was a huge murder and I ended up covering it, and I have intermittently covered police reporting and crime in courts throughout my career. But of late, as a columnist with this national Indian newspaper, I found myself writing more about policy issues, about crime across Indian country.

MARTIN: Sure, OK. Kathy, what about you?

Ms. CHANEY: Crime reporting found me. My initial interest was in politics and just human interest stories, but at a paper that I worked at one of the assignments was whenever a new reporter came on board they had to go to the local police station and, you know, go to the review office and look at the crime rolls and do reports from that, and after I went there, I kind of got hooked on it and I stayed with it.

MARTIN: That leads me to my next question. It may be an odd question but a lot of people wonder, you know, how we can do what we do. How a lot of us can do what we do. So, Kathy, I wanted to ask, what's the best thing about covering crime and what's the worst?

Ms. CHANEY: The best thing is you get to help a family that's experiencing a tragedy, show their pain to others, let others know, because they could be helping someone else who has gone through this that hasn't reached out or need to know how to, you know, deal with it. So that's the best part, is that you're helping that family help someone else and help themselves.

But the worst part is just being on scene, on a murder scene, or going to a funeral and it's just gut wrenching when you see the family break down and you want to break down but you can't. But sometimes, you know, nature just takes its course and you just have to fall with it.

MARTIN: Why can't you? Why can't you feel what you feel? Is it you just feel that would be unprofessional? Or...

Ms. CHANEY: A little part of me does, but I'll tell you, this past Saturday and me being a parent, I just let all of it out the door.

MARTIN: What happened, to those who don't know?

Ms. CHANEY: We had a nine-year-old girl named Mya Lyons who was stabbed to death last Tuesday, and her father found her in the alley about a half block away from their home. And we haven't had an incident like that in 10 years. The girl lived with her father part time here, and this past Saturday the family had scheduled to go to Great America, but instead they buried Mya Lyons.

And I'll tell you, the parents couldn't even come into the church without stomping and crying and just nearly collapsing before they even got up to the casket, and it is so hard to not let something like that upset you.

I have my daughter - my oldest daughter's nine, and there's no way - I mean, I tried to turn my head, tried to look up at the sky, I tried to suck in the tears, but it just flowed out and so did the other reporters. It was like maybe the toughest funeral that we've all had to cover.

MARTIN: That's awful.

Ms. CHANEY: It was just really tough.

MARTIN: That's awful.

Ms. CHANEY: Yes, it is.

MARTIN: Kara, what about you? What's the best and worst thing about covering crime?

Ms. BRIGGS: I think that mystery stories, crime and police stories, if you just look at the - you know, popular television series, they're just part of our culture. I think they're very engaging in that way for people and maybe in some ways that storytelling is what draws me to crime reporting, and that sometimes almost cut and dry, here's the story - this is it.

And yet, you know, I also agree - you know, I remember being a younger crime reporter for a period of a couple of years and feeling like I just became hardened, like there was a shell around myself because I think, you know, as Kathy was just saying, you do have to carry this facade sometimes, even to interact with maybe police agencies that are terser than might be normal for me.

But I have found in - maybe even sometimes had good relations, ongoing relationships with some families that I have reported on when they've had a death and maybe not even necessarily a murder but a suspicious death or a death that needed investigating. And that relationship was from the moment when they would cry and I would cry. I always tell my sources, if you cry, I cry.

MARTIN: Ti-Hua, what about you?

Mr. CHANG: Well, you know, just a point, if you don't put up a shell, you'll go insane. I think my first job was Biloxi, Mississippi. It was a young man who worked in a sewage plant and he drowned getting out of the tank full of human waste.

MARTIN: Oh.

Mr. CHANG: And he was supposed to get married that weekend and he drowned. Most drowning victims have their hands apart. His hands were together because he was very religious. And I remember that that whole weekend I was so miserable. I think I just automatically after that turn off at a certain point. And I think it's important not to because you have to be human, but if you don't, I think you'd go crazy, literally. But any case, what's great...

MARTIN: What you like about it? Yeah.

Mr. CHANG: Crime reporting is that when you can do some good, and I've done some stories, I think, that have changed things in society, and I think that's worthwhile.

And the worst part about it is, you know, frankly, when you have to go up to a family who's just had a loss and you feel like a real - really, you're invading their personal space and privacy and decency.

MARTIN: Ruben?

Mr. ROSARIO: Well, for me, my first homicide as a working reporter at the Daily News was a 16-year-old who got killed in a drug-related homicide on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and my last column was dealing with a gang banger from Mississippi who relocated to Minneapolis and has turned his life around.

So those are the highs and lows. The lows are actually going on at the end of the family members who have to deal with the loss of a loved one, caught in the crossfires of violence, and the other one is seeing a sense of redemption.

Crime, to me, is a thing that they send rookie reporters out to cover. It's the most difficult one because - it's to me, it's the drama, it's the morality play that keeps going, and as long as homicides are still the exception rather than the rule, I think that's the reason why it fascinates us so much and why crime sells, but it depends on how you cover that crime.

And to me the highlight is, as the gentleman just said, is making that difference. Is letting people know that people can change if they're ex-offenders. It's letting people know that victims can cope, can heal - not forget, but can heal and can overcome a great tragedy in their lives.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with reporters and columnists Kara Briggs, Ruben Rosario, Kathy Chaney and Ti-Hua Chang about covering crime.

Do you ever feel that your ethnicity plays a role in the way you cover your stories or in the way you are perceived to? I think about this because I remember earlier in my career, people would ask me - I know that other senior African-American reporters have told me that often, earlier in their careers, they'd be challenged. They would say, well, what side are you on? That kind of thing, people would actually say this to them. Editors would ask them, are you a journalist first or are you black first?

Now I don't feel like I have to answer this question anymore, but it could be just because I've been around a while and I don't feel people are, you know, they don't challenge you in that way, you know, when you're more experienced.

But do you ever feel that your ethnicity does play a role, either in how you see the story and how people see you covering the story? Ti-Hua, I'm going to ask you first because the visual, because you're in television and people are going to know what your ethnicity is, whether you tell them or not.

Mr. CHANG: Really? I didn't know that.

MARTIN: Yeah, you know, well...

Mr. CHANG: Anyway, yeah, no, I do. To be serious, I do let it play a role because I give you - a good example was growing up, I would see these stories on television in New York. I'm native, born and raised in New York City, and I would see stories about Chinatown where I did not live, and they were always gangs and killings and I never saw anything positive growing up. And I remember I called them to complain once, and they started yelling at me for complaining. And I thought about it...

MARTIN: Who did you call to complain and who yelled at you? That's not customer service.

Mr. CHANG: I called the TV station.

MARTIN: Wow.

Mr. CHANG: The newsroom that picked up, they were, well, you didn't look last week or something like that. Anyway, so I did a story - one of the stories I did that I'm most proud of was a story that changed the extradition laws between the United States and the Dominican Republic.

Basically, cocaine hit men and dealers were being hired who were of Dominican nationality because they could kill people and escape to the Dominican Republic and there was no extradition treaty.

And so I was writing this and I did a long investigative report, 32 reports over a couple of years. And I remember my very first story, I wrote something about Dominican killers, and it just somehow reminded me of these Chinatown stories I saw as a kid. So what I do, whenever I do a story with any particular ethnicity, I replace that name ethnicity with Chinese, and I read it to myself to see how I feel about it.

And I remember after I read it, these Chinese killers, I thought, well, I'm Chinese, I'm not a killer. So I change it to say, these killers from an area of Dominican and Dominican-Americans, most of whom are honest and hardworking - I threw that line in there right after the first line. And I only did that because I put Chinese instead of Dominican so I had a sensitivity toward that.

And after that, many Dominicans, Dominican-Americans came up to me and said, you know, we appreciated that because we felt that you were not slamming us as an ethnicity, just the criminals among us.

MARTIN: Kara, what about you?

Ms. BRIGGS: Well, most of my crime reporting has been about the white community because I've mostly worked in the northwest in Washington and in Portland, Oregon. But when my work passed into Native-American community, I would sometimes feel a coldness just out in the general urban Indian community.

I remember I was reporting on the death of a girl from alcohol poisoning, the girl from a local reservation while she was at a federal boarding school. And I remember walking through a room and half of my friends would turn away from me in sort of hostility over this coverage, and half would say, you know, I'm really glad you're writing about this difficult thing.

What I feel is a profound responsibility when I have native women elders who come and sit down at a conference and talk to me intensely about the violence against Indian women. And I what I'm left with is like a feeling that I need to do the reporting work. You know, and maybe in some cases work that is going to - is not going to be done by anyone else.

MARTIN: Kara, you raise an interesting and important point, I think, which is there is this tension sometimes between people who are going to feel like you're airing dirty laundry and other people who say, look, this is vitally important. The story has to get out. Kathy, do you ever get that? Do you ever experience that?

Ms. CHANEY: Very few times, because the Chicago Defender is a black newspaper. That is my audience, but there are certain instances where I have to keep in mind that the paper is not just read by black people.

We had the Lane Bryant mall shooting, the murders here, and I remember that we got a call that there were two black women that were killed and three white women. And we covered the story but we got calls that, you know, just - we didn't say enough about the white women, we put pictures of the black women in there, and I had to say, you know, I completely reported the story as did every other news outlet. We included all women. It wasn't my decision whose picture got shown, but we included information about all the women. ..TEXT: But that just wasn't good enough. So that made me a little bit more aware of, OK, yes, my audience is black, however, not all of it is.

MARTIN: Ruben, what about you? You're writing for a general audience paper, but you discussed the fact that you have some sensitivities. You want to be sure that you - you know, as Reverend Jackson would say, if you're going to tell it, tell it all. How do you mediate those - I don't know, maybe they're not conflicting demands in your view?

Mr. ROSARIO: Back in 1992, Ron Howell, a veteran journalist and I, we lobbied the New York Daily newsroom to open up a bureau in Harlem on 125th Street. And the reason we did that is because of that traditional non-coverage of communities, particularly in New York, north of 96th Street, Manhattan. I'm sure you know about that, Michel.

MARTIN: I do.

Mr. ROSARIO: And for three years we went up there and we covered - we decidedly and decided not to cover so much crime unless there was a big-picture issue. We cover economic development, we cover education, we cover affordable housing and then we cover crime. And what that created was a three-dimensional cushion of coverage. So I had that consciousness back in the '80s.

Now as a columnist here in the Twin Cities, I am very conscious of not only my ethnicity, but people are very conscious of mine because I have my picture out there in the front pages. So, you know, when I write about immigration or something that has to do with crime, I hear it, and I hear, you know, Mexican, go back to Mexico. Well, I'm not Mexican. I'm Puerto Rican from New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're a citizen. You say, excuse me, hello.

Mr. ROSARIO: Yeah, exactly, but you know...

MARTIN: But what about that? Do people ever accuse you of being politically correct if you try to sort of unpack a story in a way that perhaps gives it...

Mr. ROSARIO: Oh, yeah, of course.

MARTIN: A different spin than it might have otherwise? Do people say, oh, you're being politically correct, you're covering it up, you're minimizing?

Mr. ROSARIO: Right. What I try to do is diversify my column in either personalities or programs that are trying to get to the root causes of violence, and to kind of bring these people on the fold. People that the readership doesn't know about or chooses to ignore or doesn't want to see at their breakfast table, and I - that's my conscious goal, is to say, look, the Twin Cities are getting more and more diverse and we got to deal with these issues, both from what I call the crime side, but also from the economic development side, too.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue our conversation about covering crime with our roundtable of reporters of color. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, walking the walk, a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the complexities of crime reporting, particularly as a minority journalist. I'm speaking with Ruben Rosario, Ti-Hua Chang, Kara Briggs and Kathy Chaney.

What about the fact that crime doesn't always go up? Sometimes crime goes down. Is that hard to cover? New York has been much discussed as a place where crime has had some historically low levels, at least homicides have had historically low levels. Can you report that?

Mr. CHANG: Oh, all levels of crime are down. I mean, that's the truth, but crime reporting probably is up because crime reporting is very inexpensive and the audience loves it. Every time a TV station, in particular, does less crime reporting and goes so-called higher road, their ratings take a nosedive, and so it has to be covered. But there's a way to cover it so that it has some more meaning and also covering, you know, the waterboard as well as the local homicide.

MARTIN: Ruben.

Mr. ROSARIO: Crime not only sells, it's very easy to produce. You know, just got out with your camera and take a view of the, you know, flashing lights, police lights and the yellow tapes and people anguishing and crying on the streets. That's great stuff. But the thing is that we are going to be dumbing(ph) down crime even more now because there's dwindling resources in the newsroom and there's more and more air space to fill. How are you going to fill that with less people? You're going to cover the easiest subject you can cover, and that's crime.

MARTIN: But having said that, all of you have done award-winning work, and I did want, in the minute - couple of minutes that we have left, to ask you if there is something that you're working on now that you'd like the rest of the country to know about. Kara?

Ms. BRIGGS: We have some statistics that one in three native-American women will be raped in her lifetime. We also know from other government research that 70 to 80 percent of the perpetrators are non-Indian men who know that they can perpetrate on Indian land and not face the same prosecution.

I've been working on some of the policy issues, which is essentially the reservations. Though Indian nations have their own police and courts, Congress has tied their hands from prosecuting felony cases, leaving the responsibility to the FBI and federal prosecutors who, you know, are smaller in numbers and don't get around to it. And it's a national scandal because of the federal policies that are halting the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.

MARTIN: Kathy, what about you?

Ms. CHANEY: I'm looking - I did a small piece last summer about white T-shirts, and is it a friend or a foe of the police? For here in the city you see just about everyone walking down the street, mostly males, and they all have white T-shirts, and sometimes those are the ones that the police look to - that's a description that's always given, you know, he's got a white T-shirt on and some jeans.

But for a lot of those males, it's because it's an economical issue. You can go into, you know, into Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target and get a pack of, you know, six T-shirts for maybe ten bucks and that's pretty much all they can afford. So this white T-shirt kind of stifles some of the, you know, young black men, but then sometimes it's just - it's just an economical issue.

MARTIN: So just the fact that you're wearing a white T-shirt - it's such a standard identifier that people get caught up in being misidentified just because they're wearing a white T-shirt.

Ms. CHANEY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Interesting.

Ms. CHANEY: If you've got a, you know, corner full of, you know, boys that are just talking, they have all just probably come out of the store. And then you've got maybe a few blocks away where someone did do something wrong and they had on a white T-shirt, you've got a whole sea of white T-shirts now, and the police is pulling over everyone because of the white T-shirt.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Ti-Hua, what about you?

Mr. CHANG: I'm doing a story about how police respond depending on the race of the victim. There was a young Mexican immigrant woman, a young mother, 18 years old, holding her 11-month-old daughter in her arms, who was used as a human shield when two drug dealers started to shoot at each other. She was shot and killed holding her baby, and the police jailed the one that did the shooting. They never bothered to catch the person who held her. And I think if she had been, frankly, wealthy and white, they would have combed the ends of the earth to find the killer.

MARTIN: Wow. We'll look for that. Ruben, what about you?

Mr. ROSARIO: I'm going to be looking back - I did a column in 1998 on the program called "Delinquents Under 10." It was an effort to identify these young kids 10 and under, bring in a system of integrated services not only for the kid but for the families, and then monitor their progress, both academic and both in terms of living, for ten years. So by the time they turned 18 they would have judged whether this kid entered any way into a life of criminal juvenile delinquency or not. What I'm trying to do is track those kids and see what happened to them.

MARTIN: Ruben Rosario is a columnist for the Pioneer Press in Minnesota. He joined us from Minnesota Public Radio. Ti-Hua Chang is an investigative reporter for WWOR TV, a Fox station in New York and New Jersey. He joined us from our New York bureau. Kara Briggs is a columnist for Indian Country Today. She joined us by phone from Tulalip Tribes Reservation. And Kathy Chaney reports for the Chicago Defender, she joined us from WBEZ. I thank you all so much for speaking with us, and I thank you all for your hard work.

Ms. BRIGGS: My pleasure.

Mr. ROSARIO: Thank you.

Mr. CHANG: Thank you for the time.

Ms. CHANEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Remember, at Tell Me More the conversation never ends. A group of crime reporters just described for us how they confront the issues of race and crime, how they try to avoid stereotypes while telling what they hope is a more complete story. Now we want to know what you think about how crime is covered where you live. Is there enough, too much, is it fair? To tell us more you can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Or you can visit the Tell Me More page at npr.org.

Today on our Web site we're also going to introduce you to a group that's working hard to fight Chicago crime, and a local family coping with a very recent loss, the murder of 15-year-old Percy Rounds just a few days ago.

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